The PJ Tatler

Last Chance for Peace? Israeli Diplomat in Cairo

As Hamas launched more than two dozen rockets at Tel Aviv and other cities, an Israeli diplomat traveled to Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials to discuss a cease fire.

Egypt has taken the lead in trying to broker a cease fire between the warring parties. But Hamas appears to be making unreasonable demands on Israel, including a lifting of the blockade and a halt to targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has issued what could be a final warning to Hamas.

The Israeli army is ready to “significantly expand” its operation in Gaza, the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday as Hamas launched fresh rocket attacks on Tel Aviv.

Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said “The soldiers are ready for any activity that could take place”.

Netanyahu issued the warning as Israel’s “Iron Dome” system intercepted two rockets aimed at Tel Aviv. Hamas militants admitted responsibility for the latest rocket attack on Israel’s commercial capital.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry told FRANCE24 that a ground offensive into Gaza was likely if the rocket attacks continued.

“Our sole aim of this offensive is to make Hamas stop firing rockets. We have used air strikes but if that’s not enough then we may contemplate ground operations as well,” Ygal Palmor from the Israeli foreign ministry told FRANCE 24 on Sunday.

“If rockets are being fired then that will bring the ground operation forward,” he added.

That makes the Israeli negotiator’s job in Cairo all the more urgent:

Egyptian security officials say a senior Israeli official has arrived in Cairo for talks on reaching a cease-fire to end an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The officials said the official arrived at Cairo’s airport and was immediately rushed away from the tarmac into talks.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under security guidelines, did not identify the Israeli.

Israeli officials declined comment.

Egypt has been leading international efforts to broker a truce to end five days of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.

Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was in Cairo, confirmed the Israeli’s arrival.

He says there are “serious attempts to reach a cease-fire.”

Shaath was headed to Gaza later Sunday to work on cease-fire efforts.

Egypt’s President Morsi has been surprisingly pragmatic during the crisis, foregoing the usual Israel-bashing rhetoric by largely remaining silent while working behind the scenes with the US and other Arab countries to bring about a cease fire.

If Israel goes back into Gaza, both Egypt and Jordan — the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel — would come under pressure from their people to break off ties, a move that would undoubtedly strengthen Hamas.

But to the relief of Obama administration officials, Mr. Morsi so far has not hinted at such a move, which would threaten the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, a linchpin for stability in the region in Washington’s view. And administration officials say Mr. Morsi has indicated that he will try to calm the situation in Gaza before it worsens.

Whether that effort extends to lobbying for Hamas to crack down on jihadist groups that have been launching attacks on Israel, as Israel would like to see Mr. Morsi do, is not clear. But at the moment, the relative quiet out of Cairo is being viewed in Washington as a positive first step.

“If Morsi wanted to use this for populist reasons, he’d be adopting a different posture,” said Martin S. Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel and the author of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”

The Egyptian president has not suddenly gone soft on Israel. Morsi can’t afford to lose American aid at this point with his economy near collapse — something that would almost certainly happen if he abrogates the peace treaty. For the present, Morsi will play the statesman role.

But a ground assault by Israel would complicate Morsi’s position and he may buckle to domestic pressures from his Islamist allies. But while Netanyahu doesn’t want to force his hand, the Israeli prime minister will do whatever is necessary to protect his citizens from the rocket barrage deliberately begun by Hamas to trigger a violent response while targeting innocent civilians.